Uche Nduka is an essayist, a collagist, songwriter and lecturer. As a poet, he has authored nine poetry volumes: Flower Child (1988), Second Act (1994), The Bremen Poems (1995), Chiaroscuro (1997, winner of the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize), If Only the Night (2002), Heart’s Field (2005), eel on reef (2007), Ijele (2012), and Nine East (2013). He has also published Belltime Letters (2000), a book of commentaries and whimsical mediations.
“Poetry can be redemptive without being a banal protest; without exuding forced righteousness.” – Uche Nduka
Uche Peter Umez: Afam Akeh calls you the most confessional of Nigerian poets and you seem to be more prolific than many of your contemporaries. You are probably the most experimental of all Nigerian poets, where do you find the energy for such rare creativity and industry?
Uche Nduka: Perhaps my prolificity is due to the fact that my work evolves as my daily life. My life in poetry. Poetry in my life. Afam Akeh is one of the members of my generation of poets that I most respect and listen to. I was so happy when he returned to writing poetry after about a decade or more of silence. He reads my poetry with devotion and close attention. Right from our beginnings in Lagos he has encouraged and supported my work. He may not be wrong in calling me a confessional poet but that is just one aspect of my writing. Other critics and appreciators have seen me as a surrealist poet, political poet, anarchist poet, environmental poet, abstract poet, avant-garde poet, etc. I don’t have a label for myself or what I write. Regarding where I find the energy for work, I guess it resides in my unapologetic love for life and my curiosity about everything.
Umez: Given that sex is a private and taboo subject in Nigeria, in particular, why the fascination with ‘the pianissimo of screwing’, when there are issues of more urgency and gravitas that demand our creative engagement and collective action? Why have you chosen to break away from the traditional expectations of poetry in Nigeria? And what informed your dissent?
Nduka: There are other human experiences and emotions to write about beside anger. Poems are not only for gunning, for other people, no matter how pernicious they may be. Anger is a tiny bit of human existence and should never be over-orchestrated. I am very suspicious of ‘Protest Poetry’. Poetry can be redemptive without being a banal protest; without exuding forced righteousness. Shrillness cheapens poems. A nation that demands that the entirety of its poetry should only address socio-political ills must be delusional, hysterical, and uninhabitable. A poet should not only be wracked with the meanness of history. No nation on earth can dictate the themes of my poetry. I will not surrender my artistic freedom to Nigeria or any other nation for that matter. Why should I submit to the puritanism of Nigeria?
Umez: Adrienne Rich said, ‘We go to poetry because we believe it has something to do with us.’ I know some poets who think that poetry is a means of self-expression, and those who think it is a portal to self-discovery. What does it mean to you to be a poet?
Nduka: To be a poet is to understand that a poem is a moving target. It is to redefine what a poem may be or mean each time one sits down to write. Poetry is about both self-discovery and innovation. For me poetry is not about either or. It is about both/both. A poem in motion takes in everything. I am an individual, not a symbol. I write about subjects that pull me to them. I prefer a multifaceted approach to style and theme. I think that the duty of a poet is not only his/her redemption but the redemption of those against whom he/she rebels.
Umez: I wonder if you keep a journal because your poems sometimes read like a montage of memories. Can you describe your writing life? Do you work in line with a programme? Where does a poem begin for you? How do you know when a poem is working? How did the title Nine East come about?
Nduka: No, I don’t keep a journal. I just have various small notebooks where I write down stray lines, observations, ideas that may or may not enter the poems I am writing. I write in scraps. Scraptures! I read other writers and watch lots of movies. I am not programmatic in my approach to writing. A poem begins anywhere for me. The first lines of a poem may turn out to be the last lines when I finish writing. And the last lines may become the first lines. My intuition and intellect help me to know when a poem is working or when it is not working. I revise a lot. The title of my latest volume of poems Nine East came to me while I was wandering around Manhattan in New York City.
Umez: You said elsewhere in an interview that you embody a poem. What really inspired you to write the poem, ‘towards the yogi/walking among black oaks;/the genii/and a heirloom; /are you worth/something to a nailhead;’? By the way, can you speak more about this particular poem (72)?
ink a few
steps beyond a garage
score a dazzle across a room
she will not
be just anyone anywhere
neither will he
Nduka: The poem seems to be a celebration of the energy that is exchanged between a man and a woman just by being in the same room. The exhilarating recognition that transpires between two people. It is one of those lovely moments you hope for in life.
Umez: Susan Sontag said, ‘The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.’ How much of this statement reflects your artistic vision?
Nduka: I like being elastic to the possibilities of a poem in progress. I’ve got a head full of wild poems clamouring to be written. Sometimes, writing a poem is a kind of purification for me. Sometimes, it comes as a need to assert the impure. Almost everything I write has some African consciousness because that’s part of what I am. But I think this is not in a doctrinaire mode. I covet polyvalence, polyvocality, heterogeneity. The poem is my defense. Here, too, a climate of unrest persists. A poem is wide; it contains sobriety and drunkenness.
Umez: There are references to music in Nine East, so I am curious, what kind of music appeal to you? And who are your influences on poetry?
Nduka: Depending on my mood, I listen to different kinds of music: Afro Beat, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Heavy Metal, Punk, Grunge, Jazz, Highlife, Country, Reggae, Blues, Classical, Folk, Agidigbo, Soul, Ambiente, Indie Rock, Funk, Bossa Nova, etc.
My influences: Maya Deren, Hafez, Hannah Weiner, Allen Grossman, Alexei Parshchikov, Ellen Einan, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Frank Stanford, Giovanna Sandri, Robert Frank, Sophie Calle, Niffari, Abdel Wahab Al Bayati, Dennis Brutus, Lyn Hejinian, Yi Sang, Gu Cheng, Oliverio Girondo, Alice Notley, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ornette Coleman, Jack Goldstein, Eliseo Diego, Ulises Carrion. Etel Adnan, Ikkyu, Else Lasker-Schuler, Anna Swir, Raymond Pettibon, Nne Mmonwu, Ulaga, Okpoka, Mbari, Nsibidi, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Olivier Cadiot among others.
Umez: Though I am thinking of Ijele, which collection has been the most demanding for you in putting together? How long did it take you to finish that collection?
Nduka: And my street asked: which secret did you give him that you did not give to her street? Can this parade ever be orderly? I doubt it. My natal connection to that country. Rationing out expletives. Is it rage? Is it courage? Is it fear? I love to travel light and fast. Ijele taught me that I cannot reduce life to some kind of explanation. Ijele partly tries to explore my Igbo identity in the contemporary world; its nurturing and troubling aspects. Some of the poems are unruly; others are serene. There is a conversation between sonority and cacophony in the book. John Cage, Sun Ra, Stockhausen are presences in the work. There is a freshness to the cumulative compositional qualities and impulses in Ijele. The book took me about two years to write. Practically all my poetry volumes made serious demands on me. They were not casually put together. For instance, the poems of Nine East developed over the course of the sequence. The book signifies beyond its own confines. Poetry is the art of putting reality on trial. I tried to calibrate scale and content in my volume titled If Only The Night. There was a very active involvement with process and the volumetric. Other motivations for the book include the tactile and the abstract.
Umez: Poetry in Nigeria has often been aimed at protesting the lapses of government and yet we have witnessed little or no transformation in political terms. What do you think is the power of poetry? What do you think of current Nigerian poetry? Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
Nduka: We are still coming to terms with the legacy of the civil war in Nigeria. We are now witnessing the effects of the draconian regimes that held Nigeria hostage for many decades. Nigeria is an aesthetic resource for me but I don’t have the mentality to belong to a coterie. There are so many ways to be a poet in the world. Perhaps each poet’s destination is different. Occasionally, I need space and time to deepen my vision and artistry. Why allow others define your artistic options for you? Cow skull, sailor cap, distillery. Bad apples taste better. Artisanal barefoot sleep deprivation. I do not find lavish ease enlightening. Big ups or flying under the radar. Luggage and confetti on fire. Poetry is more powerful and enduring than any political party or government. Poetry is taking a turn away from predetermined lifestyle, expression, language, tone, theme.
I think what current Nigerian poetry needs are poems with more range and flexibility and rigorous imagination. Let the ways Nigerian poets confront Nigeria be multi-pronged; not predictable. Let the poets diversify their themes and style. Let them develop a distaste for uniformity, dogma, rigidity. We should not allow ourselves to languish in a literary tradition that seemingly had exhausted its capacity for invention. There is no need for contemporary Nigerian poetry to remain static. My advice for aspiring poets? Leave the well-trodden path.
Uche Peter Umez writes poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction, and stories for children. An Alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Uche has participated in residencies in Ghana, India, Switzerland and Italy. He was one of the winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition (in 2006 & 2008), and has been shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, in 2007 & 2011. He is a Board Member, Ebedi International Writer’s Residency, and lives in Owerri, with his wife and their children.